Thursday, July 23, 2009

Getting to Know the Neighbors

On the long fourth of July weekend, foregoing all thought of an African safari, we embarked on a modest “getting acquainted” road trip to our near neighbors Wisconsin and Iowa. The hills along the freeway in western Wisconsin are always a pleasure to motor through, and it’s easier to enjoy them when you aren’t making a long haul to Madison or Chicago. We were destined for Devil’s Lake State Park and the International Crane Center just north of Baraboo.

I have read that Devil’s Lake gets more visitors every year than Yellowstone. Well, it didn’t seem that crowded to me. The lake itself was a bit forlorn, tucked within its envelope of towering gray cliffs. We had secured a wooded campsite in the Ice Age ring on-line, and that entire zone of the campground proved to be not only heavily shaded but downright chilly. We spent the better part of the evening sitting on the dusty ground in our collapsible leg-less chairs, watching the fire as the children from the neighboring sites, all of whom seemed to know one another, rode their bikes repeated back and forth, to and from the toilet facilities that were just across the road. We had already hit the sack when camp songs began to drift our way through the night, but I conked out before I had time to get worked up about it. Much later we weres awakened by the sound of a barred owl hooting from the branch of a tree close by—in fact, it sounded like it was right outside the tent. Listening near at hand to the rich extended trill at the end of the fourth and last note of that haunting call was a real thrill. Over and over and over again.

The next morning we broke camp at sunrise and headed into Baraboo, passing Circus World along the way. It appeared to be closed, all the booths were empty, but the place did look intriguing from the window of a speeding car. After an odd sort of breakfast in downtown Baraboo—huevos rancheros with no beans?—we continued a few miles north to the crane center, situated out in the hilly fields a few miles north of town. The center is dedicated not only to breeding cranes of all sorts in captivity, but also to education projects designed to maintain and expand the habitat that cranes need to survive. Their most well-publicized projects are designed to increase the population of whooping cranes, and even to establish alternative migration routes with the use of ultra-light aircraft. But the Center also devotes funds and personnel to far-flung places in China and Africa with the same end in view—to enhance the habitat of the grus species that live in those parts of the world.

It’s fun to look at the maps and watch the videos, but most people come to the center to see the cranes themselves, and if I’m not mistaken, there is no other place in the world where you can see all fifteen species within the space of forty-five minutes.

Cranes are beautiful—though the waddled crane is not quite so beautiful as some. The crowned cranes of Africa, with golden spikes of feathers rising from the tops of their heads, are so exotic as to appear almost comical. I was confused as to which species—the Siberian crane or the red-crowned crane—is we one we see so often in Chinese paintings, and it perturbed me to realize that if I had looked at the paintings more carefully in the first place, this would never have been an issue.

The sandhill cranes in their pen looked much smaller than the ones we often see by the hundreds in the cornfields outside Grantsburg, but I suppose they may have been a non-migratory subspecies brought in from Florida.

Some of the cranes were leaping about and squawking in their grassy wedge-shaped pens. Others were pacing back and forth anxiously right in front of us. The whooping cranes, an elegant white, have been given an enclosure of several thousand square feet, and they were standing on a ridge above a pond when we arrived. They looked like egrets, only far more robust and twice as big. It was amazing to consider that the population of this species had been reduced to a dismal twenty birds by the early twentieth century, and stayed at that dangerously low level for decades. Today North America can boast 250-odd whooping cranes, and I would like to propose that we match every tax dollar we spend to send another man to the moon with fifty cents to improve whooping crane habitat and flyways.

After viewing the various birds we wandered for a while through the patches of prairie north of the enclosures, and we could see “Crane City” in the distance across the fields. That’s where they breed the birds and hatch the chicks. It’s off-limits to visitors, though we could hear the squawking loud and clear.

It was well into the afternoon by the time we hit the road. Returning to Devil’s Lake, we hiked up into the cliffs for a bit, then wandered across a field at the east end of the park, getting a feel for the landscape. Meadowlarks were everywhere, and by their simple call I could tell they were the eastern subspecies, which we very seldom get in Minnesota. I also spotted a species I’d never seen before, common though it’s reputed to be—the dickcissel. Though its call was intriguing, we had just spent the morning staring at elegant long-throated white creatures standing five feet in the air, and the lowly dickcissel suffered a bit in comparison— just one more little brown bird to add to the list.

By the time we arrived at the Frank Lloyd Wright center in Spring Green... (to be continued)

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